A Crystal Age, by William Henry Hudson

Chapter 7

The moment of retiring, to which I had been looking forward with considerable interest as one likely to bring fresh surprises, arrived at last: it brought only extreme discomfort. I was conducted (without a flat candlestick) along an obscure passage; then, at right angles with the first, a second broader, lighter passage, leading past a great many doors placed near together. These, I ascertained later, were the dormitories, or sleeping-cells, and were placed side by side in a row opening on the terrace at the back of the house. Having reached the door of my box, my conductor pushed back the sliding-panel, and when I had groped my way to the dark interior, closed it again behind me. There was no light for me except the light of the stars; for directly opposite the door by which I had entered stood another, open wide to the night, which was apparently not intended ever to be closed. The prospect was the one I had already seen — the wilderness sloping to the river, and the glassy surface of the broad water, reflecting the stars, and the black masses of large trees. There was no sound save the hooting of an owl in the distance, and the wailing note of some mournful-minded water-fowl. The night air blew in cold and moist, which made my bones ache, though they were not broken; and feeling very sleepy and miserable, I groped about until I Was rewarded by discovering a narrow bed, or cot of trellis-work, on which was a hard straw pallet and a small straw pillow; also, folded small, a kind of woolen sleeping garment. Too tired to keep out of even such an uninviting bed, I flung off my clothes, and with my moldy tweeds for only covering I laid me down, but not to sleep. The misery of it! for although my body was warm — too warm, in fact — the wind blew on my face and bare feet and legs, and made it impossible to sleep.

About midnight, I was just falling into a doze when a sound as of a person coming with a series of jumps into the room disturbed me; and starting up I was horrified to see, sitting on the floor, a great beast much too big for a dog, with large, erect ears. He was intently watching me, his round eyes shining like a pair of green phosphorescent globes. Having no weapon, I was at the brute’s mercy, and was about to utter a loud shout to summon assistance, but as he sat so still I refrained, and began even to hope that he would go quietly away. Then he stood up, went back to the door and sniffed audibly at it; and thinking that he was about to relieve me of his unwelcome presence, I dropped my head on the pillow and lay perfectly still. Then he turned and glared at me again, and finally, advancing deliberately to my side, sniffed at my face. It was all over with me now, I thought, and closing my eyes, and feeling my forehead growing remarkably moist in spite of the cold, I murmured a little prayer. When I looked again the brute had vanished, to my inexpressible relief.

It seemed very astonishing that an animal like a wolf should come into the house; but I soon remembered that I had seen no dogs about, so that all kinds of savage, prowling beasts could come in with impunity. It was getting beyond a joke: but then all this seemed only a fit ending to the perfectly absurd arrangement into which I had been induced to enter. “Goodness gracious!” I exclaimed, sitting bolt upright on my straw bed, “am I a rational being or an inebriated donkey, or what, to have consented to such a proposal? It is clear that I was not quite in my right mind when I made the agreement, and I am therefore not morally bound to observe it. What! be a field laborer, a hewer of wood and drawer of water, and sleep on a miserable straw mat in an open porch, with wolves for visitors at all hours of the night, and all for a few barbarous rags! I don’t know much about plowing and that sort of thing, but I suppose any able-bodied man can earn a pound a week, and that would be fifty-two pounds for a suit of clothes. Who ever heard of such a thing! Wolves and all thrown in for nothing! I daresay I shall have a tiger dropping in presently just to have a look round. No, no, my venerable friend, that was all excellent acting about my extraordinary delusions, and the rest of it, but I am not going to be carried so far by them as to adhere to such an outrageously one-sided bargain.”

Presently I remembered two things — divine Yoletta was the first; and the second was that thought of the rare pleasure it would be to array myself in those same “barbarous rags,” as I had blasphemously called them. These things had entered into my soul, and had become a part of me — especially — well, both. Those strange garments had looked so refreshingly picturesque, and I had conceived such an intense longing to wear them! Was it a very contemptible ambition on my part? Is it sinful to wish for any adornments other than wisdom and sobriety, a meek and loving spirit, good works, and other things of the kind? Straight into my brain flashed the words of a sentence I had recently read — that is to say, just before my accident — in a biological work, and it comforted me as much as if an angel with shining face and rainbow-colored wings had paid me a visit in my dusky cell: “Unto Adam also, and his wife, did the Lord God make coats of skin and clothed them. This has become, as every one knows, a custom among the race of men, and shows at present no sign of becoming obsolete. Moreover, that first correlation, namely, milk-glands and a hairy covering, appears to have entered the very soul of creatures of this class, and to have become psychical as well as physical, for in that type, which is only for a while inferior to the angels, the fondness for this kind of outer covering is a strong, ineradicable passion!” Most true and noble words, O biologist of the fiery soul! It was a delight to remember them. A “strong and ineradicable passion,” not merely to clothe the body, but to clothe it appropriately, that is to say, beautifully, and by so doing please God and ourselves. This being so, must we go on for ever scraping our faces with a sharp iron, until they are blue and spotty with manifold scrapings; and cropping our hair short to give ourselves an artificial resemblance to old dogs and monkeys — creatures lower than us in the scale of being — and array our bodies, like mutes at a funeral, in repulsive black — we, “Eutheria of the Eutheria, the noble of the noble?” And all for what, since it pleases not heaven nor accords with our own desires? For the sake of respectability, perhaps, whatever that may mean. Oh, then, a million curses take it — respectability, I mean; may it sink into the bottomless pit, and the smoke of its torment ascend for ever and ever! And having thus, by taking thought, brought my mind into this temper, I once more finally determined to have the clothes, and religiously to observe the compact.

It made me quite happy to end it in this way. The hard bed, the cold night wind blowing on me, my wolfish visitor, were all forgotten. Once more I gave loose to my imagination, and saw myself (clothed and in my right mind) sitting at Yoletta’s feet, learning the mystery of that sweet, tranquil life from her precious lips. A whole year was mine in which to love her and win her gentle heart. But her hand — ah, that was another matter. What had I to give in return for such a boon as that? Only that strength concerning which my venerable host had spoken somewhat encouragingly. He had also been so good as to mention my skill; but I could scarcely trade on that. And if a whole year’s labor was only sufficient to pay for a suit of clothing, how many years of toil would be required to win Yoletta’s hand?

Naturally, at this juncture, I began to draw a parallel between my case and that of an ancient historical personage, whose name is familiar to most. History repeats itself — with variations. Jacob — namely, Smith — cometh to the well of Haran. He taketh acquaintance of Rachel, here called Yoletta. And Jacob kissed Rachel, and lifted up his voice and wept. That is a touch of nature I can thoroughly appreciate — the kissing, I mean; but why he wept I cannot tell, unless it be because he was not an Englishman. And Jacob told Rachel that he was her father’s brother. I am glad to have no such startling piece of information to give to the object of my affections: we are not even distant relations, and her age being, say, fifteen, and mine twenty-one, we are so far well suited to each other, according to my notions. Smith covenanted! for Yoletta, and said: “I will serve thee seven years for Yoletta, thy younger daughter”; and the old gentleman answered: “Abide with me, for I would rather you should have her than some other person.” Now I wonder whether the matter will be complicated with Leah — that is, Edra? Leah was considerably older than Rachel, and, like Edra, tender-eyed. I do not aspire or desire to marry both, especially if I should, like Jacob, have to begin with the wrong one, however tender-eyed: but for divine Yoletta I could serve seven years; yea, and fourteen, if it comes to it.

Thus I mused, and thus I questioned, tossing and turning on my inhospitable hard bed, until merciful sleep laid her quieting hands on the strings of my brain, and hushed their weary jangling.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38